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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Russia strikes Danube River port, escalating attacks on Ukrainian agriculture

Furniture is removed from a house that was struck by Russian air bombardment in the town of New York in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, July 23, 2023.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg

Russia bombarded infrastructure at a port on the Danube River in southern Ukraine with drones, local authorities said Monday, destroying a grain hangar in an escalation of its efforts to cripple Ukrainian agriculture, one of the country’s leading industries.

The attack appeared to signal that Moscow, having pulled out from a deal that enabled Ukraine to ship its grain across the Black Sea, is now targeting the country’s alternative export routes.

Global wheat prices, which rose last week after Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal, rose around 5.5% in Monday morning trading.

A local news website in the port of Reni said the attacks had happened there and published a photograph of the aftermath. Reni, a town of around 18,000 people more than 130 miles southwest of the city of Odesa, lies on the east bank of the Danube, just across from Romania, which is a member of NATO.

Romania’s Ministry of Defense on Monday condemned an attack on civilian targets and critical infrastructure in Ukraine “located in the proximity of the Romanian borders,” an apparent reference to the drone strikes. The ministry said it was maintaining a posture of “enhanced vigilance” with its allies along the alliance’s eastern flank.

“There are no potential direct military threats against our national territory or Romania’s territorial waters,” the ministry said in a statement.

The drone attack occurred over the course of four hours, Oleh Kiper, the head of the regional military administration, wrote on the Telegram messaging app, adding that three drones were shot down by Ukraine’s air defenses. He said seven people were injured, three with light shrapnel wounds and one who was in serious condition.

Mike Lee, director of Green Square Agro Consultancy, which specializes in the Black Sea and Eastern Europe, said the attack appeared to be the first on a Danube port this year. He called it a “massive escalation” by Moscow in terms of the effect it could have on Ukraine’s ability to use alternative routes for its exports.

Since the Kremlin pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative last week, its forces have launched attacks nearly every night on the city of Odesa and its Black Sea port, destroying grain stocks and infrastructure.

Those attacks, along with Moscow’s warning that it would consider any ship approaching Ukraine’s Black Sea ports as potentially carrying military cargo, made Ukraine’s alternative grain routes more important.

Ukraine has been exporting around 2 million metric tons of grain per month through its Danube River ports, according to Benoît Fayaud, deputy executive director of Stratégie Grains, an agricultural economy research firm.

The attack on Reni could deter commercial vessels from using the port in the short term and could raise the cost of insurance, Fayaud said. He said the assault on the port was likely one reason for the rise in wheat prices.

Ukraine is a major producer of grain and other food crops. The United Nations has said that Russia’s attempts to stop Ukraine’s exports exacerbate a hunger crisis faced by some countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. Ukraine exports grain via road and rail into European Union countries, as well as via the Danube ports. Last summer, Brussels took steps to smooth the path for Ukraine’s overland grain exports.

But after protests by farmers in some EU countries, the bloc allowed Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia to ban domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, corn, rapeseed and sunflower seeds, though they continued to allow the transit of those items for export elsewhere.

The ban is expected to end Sept. 15. Last week, however, ministers from those five countries called for the bloc to allow the bans to be extended — a call that further underlined the importance of the Danube River ports to Ukraine.

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